This is the story of how I escaped religion.
I was raised catholic. Mass was a wondrous experience to me. The music, the vestments, the ritual, the stained glass, my Sunday classes with the nuns, were all things I looked forward to every Sunday morning. Even as I grew older, I was always bitterly disappointed when I was unable to go. When I finally made my first confession and first communion, I was ecstatic. I loved reading tales about the saints and the Virgin Mary. My great-grandmother (even though I only saw her rarely) was the only relative who was able to keep me indoors on a gorgeous summer afternoon with her stories about the saints, miracles, and the time she saw the pope in person. She predicted that I was destined to become a nun. When she passed away, she left me her rosary that had been blessed by the pope-her most treasured possession.
However, when I was 12, my parents split up and within a year were divorced. We stopped going to mass. I missed it terribly. On Sunday mornings, I would stay in my room, finding solace in my rosary and prayer books. This lasted for about two years.
At the age of 15, a friend of mine invited me to her church just down the street from my house. It was a small baptist church. I asked my dad if it was okay and he told me to go ahead. That next Sunday, my friend and her family picked me up and we drove past the seven houses that separated my house from that small church.
It was quite different from what I knew. The Sunday school lesson, the songs before the sermon, the sermon itself all pointed to a direct, open relationship with Jesus and the god of the universe. By the end of the service, I was hooked. The people there talked about god like they had just seen him at the breakfast table. They welcomed me graciously and urged me to stay for the dinner-on-the-grounds. How could I refuse? I was drawn like a moth to the flame. I left there that afternoon determined to go back that evening.
Within a month, I had been saved and baptized. Within six months, I was going to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evenings, singing in the choir, heavily involved in the youth group, volunteering for anything they would let me do, and sitting in the front row with my bible taking notes of the sermons.
Before a year had gone by, I was well versed in creationism; knew abortion was an abomination before god; was convinced that homosexuality was going to be the downfall of America; could tell you why a woman's role in the body of christ was so limited; was certain that even thinking about sex before marriage was the path to hell. I soaked it in like a sponge and believed every word that came from the Sunday school teacher and the pastor. I spent hours studying the bible, praying, and reading books on apologetics and theology. I attended revival meetings, went witnessing, memorized scripture, stayed away from any TV show, book, or movie deemed sinful by my pastor. Nearly every friend I had was a member of that church.
I never went through a rebellious phase, because good little christian girls always did what there parents said to do even if they didn't like it. Even at the ages of 15, 16, 17, it was “ma'am” and “sir” to my parents, never complaining about whatever chores I was given to do, never talking back, taking care of my younger sister and two younger brothers, never getting into trouble in school, showing the utmost respect for all my teachers…it was certainly weird. I remember overhearing my mother commenting to my aunt that she was glad I never went through “that awful teenage stage.” All because I loved Jesus with every fiber of my being. There was not a doubt in my mind that I was heaven-bound.
When I graduated from high school and went to collage, things did not change much. Although I never found a church that I really liked, I found a home in the methodist student center. The director was a great big bear of a man with a heart of gold and he welcomed all comers. He even forgave me for being baptist. It wasn't long before I was as involved in activities there as I had been in my little baptist church back home. I made a new group of friends who prayed together, studied scripture together, and kept each other on the straight and narrow. I was a fine example of how a good christian girl should behave even though I was away from home for the first time. I never partied or even drank; was never late for class; never skipped class; turned in all my assignments on time; never stayed up past midnight, except during finals week; and never, ever went anywhere alone with a boy. The closest I came to dating was when I went places with a group of my friends from the methodist student center. I kept myself pure in mind and body because to do anything else would have disappointed Jesus. When after two years, by dad told me I could not go back to college, the methodist student center and the friends I had there were the only things I truly, missed.
I settled back into my little baptist church and was happy there until I was 21 or 22, when the pastor I had grown to love left. In his place, the search committee put a slightly bitter, slightly liberal man with none of the charisma of Pastor Tommy. I began praying about finding another church.
For the next couple of years I joined and left two or three churches-each more conservative that the last. I would join, get active, discover that I wasn't comfortable there, decide that I had not heard god correctly about joining this particular church. (It certainly couldn't be god's fault that I couldn't find a new church home.) At this point I would start praying about finding another church. All the time, my world was growing more and more narrow as I learned more about being a good christian woman. I was becoming more and more subdued in my mannerisms, speech patterns, and dress. Always an introvert, I found it easy to fade further and further in to the wallpaper and accept my destiny as a humble servant of christ.
My next real church home was a medium-sized baptist church. I was about 24. It was the same pattern all over again. I joined and became active in everything I could. Most of the young adults at this church were unofficial youth group chaperones, so it was not long before I was one also. Soon, in addition to everything else I was doing, I was helping to teach teenage girls (being a woman, I could not teach the teenage boys). My entire life revolved around god, Jesus, and this church. I gained a reputation as an outstanding example of what a single christian woman should be. I was the perfect, humble, obedient, unquestioning christian woman. My life was an open book and no one could find fault.
It was while I was at this church that I felt led to go back to college. After much prayer and counsel, I decided that god wanted me to be teacher. I studied hard. After all this is what god wanted me to do with my life, I couldn't let him down by getting bad grades.
About a semester into my new college career, I made a new group of friends. They all attended a non-denominational church in a rundown section of town. Soon I was attending also. These were people who experienced god in every moment of their lives. God was part of the air that they breathed. Doctrine was strict and extremely conservative. Worship included raising hands in the air, speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles all done to a background of bass guitar and drums. Roles for men and women, single and married were heavily delineated. Rules about how to run your life were made clear and elders reserved to right to examine any aspect of your life from finances to dress to how you raised you children. Every member of the church was assigned to
an elder who was seen as being personally responsible for your spiritual growth. The church was growing by leaps and bounds as word got out about how god was transforming people. I ate it up with a spoon.
It didn't take me long to fall into line and become a respected part of this church-or as respected as a single woman could be in such a patriarchal system. Soon I was being held up again as an example of how a single christian woman behaved. I baby-sat the children of elders, helped their wives with house cleaning, they would call me if they were having trouble getting their children ready for church, I went out with groups to witness (but only to other women-I had no business revealing the word of god to a man). The amount of time I spent studying the bible and praying increased. The largest topics of conversation with my friends were what god was doing in our lives, things we were struggling to surrender to god, what we had learned in our personal bible studies, and asking each other to point out areas where we were not living up to the standards set forth by god. My friends and I even went clothes shopping together so we could make sure we would not offend god with our clothing and jewelry. What little ability I had left to think for myself, to reach my own decisions was soon gone. God's rules were strict and he demanded absolute obedience. My life had totally been taken over. I had become a right-wing evangelical, fundamentalist, homophobic, anti-choice, creationist, misogynous, bible-thumping, anti-sex, see-the-world-in-black-and-white, smug, arrogant, holier-than-thou christian woman. I was a living, breathing two-dimensional stereotype. There was hardly a thought in my head or a word that passed my lips that did not have its origin in something either the pastor or my church elder said.
As for school, I did very well until it came time for my student teaching. I had never failed so badly at anything in my life. I was devastated, shattered, broken. I had let down all those people who had prayed for me and had given me emotional support while I was in school. But the most heart-rending of all to me was I knew that god was disappointed with me. I spent hours flat on my face in prayer crying out to him for forgiveness, telling him over and over how sorry I was that I had failed him. Months of depression followed. I expected god to strike me with a suitable punishment at any second and at that point I would have suffered anything if I thought that it would bring god's forgiveness. I was 28 years old.
At this point, my church elder approached me. He told me he and his wife had been praying about my situation. He said to me that god had told him that I had not failed god, but had been undergoing a test. A test I had passed because I had never cursed god or abandoned the path he had set for me. Right then and there, I was ready to fall to the ground and kiss this man's feet, but that would have been unseemly. So I stood there with my head bowed and listened quietly as a good christian woman should when being addressed by her elder. He continued. I was to rededicate myself to the service of god by serving the least of his children-the unborn. The word had come down from on high, so that is exactly what I did.
That next Saturday, I was one of those people holding one of those gruesome signs in front an abortion clinic. I was there that Saturday and every Saturday thereafter for almost two years. I held signs, sang songs, prayed, protested. When it was hot I handed out ice water to my fellow antiabortionists. When it was cold, I served coffee and hot chocolate. I was only a lowly handmaiden of the lord, doing as he commanded. But I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to heaven, and also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it I had anything more than a tent in heaven, it was going to be only by god's grace. I was nothing. Yet if you had asked me, I would have sworn to heaven that I was blissfully happy.
It was March 1993. I was 29, fast approaching 30. It was a week or so after the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Florida. I was standing at the street holding one of those horrible signs when I felt led to go pray. It was early afternoon and things were winding down. I handed off my sign to another woman and walked down the parking lot. (On one side of the parking lot was the clinic, one the other a row of six or seven offices-one of which the antiabortion group I was part of rented. We couldn't have asked for a better set up.) I knelt down on the blacktop and began to pray. I asked god for an end to the horror of abortion. I asked god to touch the hearts of the people who worked in the clinic so they could see what an awful thing they were doing and become his servants. Then I prayed that if god could not turn the hearts of the abortionist and his accomplices, that he strike them down in such a way as to be a lesson for others who would dare abort or conspire to abort a baby. Then I told god that I was willing to be the vessel for the destruction of these people if that was his will. At that moment, if that clinic had blown up I wouldn't have just been glad, I would have reveled, gloried, basked in the deaths of those murderers; rejoiced in the fact that they were burning in hell. And if someone had been able to look into my mind at that instant they would have seen that I was ready to personally destroy these people whose only crime was to think that women deserved to the right to have abortions. That is all I knew about those people who worked in that clinic. I didn't know their names, whether or not they had children of their own, or what they did when they weren't at the clinic. The sole reason I was ready to see these people dead; ready kill them myself; was the fact that I thought they were defying the god of the universe by providing abortions. At the time, it was just the next logical step on the path I was walking.
It was summer of 1993. I was 30 years old. Operation Rescue had come to Jackson, Mississippi in a big way. Daily protests, rallies at night. And I was in the middle of it all, there for every minute of it. I slept maybe six hours the whole week. I became the right hand of the people Operation Rescue had sent to run the show. I set up and ran the registration tables, gave people their assignments, enlisted prayer warriors, made sure we had enough signs and other supplies, faced down news crews who wanted to film inside the nightly rallies, I was on a mission for god. When it was all over, I was offered a scholarship to Operation Rescue's school in Florida where they taught you how to put on a show like this. I declined. I did not feel that god wanted me to leave where I was.
But something inside me was changing. My grandmother, a born feminist, was appalled by my involvement in the antiabortion movement. We argued bitterly over this issue. She told me horror stories of the days before women had access to contraception and abortions-things I had been told were just urban myths made up by the pro-abortion movement to drum up support for their cause. But my grandmother was the most honest person I knew. Someone had to be lying. I started asking questions about what I had been told. The only answers I got were silence or being told that I had been misled by the person who told me about those things. My grandmother challenged me in other ways. She remembered what life was like for women in the days prior to the women's rights movement.
Every so slowly, my eyes opened. I knew that I had been lied to by the very people I trusted to guide me to the truth. It wasn't long before I was questioning everything I had been taught about god, myself and my place it the universe. When I asked my pastor and elder about these things I was told to pray more, study my bible more, find out what sin in my life was causing me to act this way. By the end of 1993, I had left this church. I left the antiabortion movement. I couldn't live that way any more.
But I wasn't finished with god yet. In spite of my burgeoning doubts about religion and god, I ran straight back into the arms of the catholic church of my childhood. I was no longer sure about anything. I was spending hours and hours praying to god for a sign to restore my ebbing faith. I could not imagine life without god. I returned to the catholic church, even as I confessed to the priest that I was growing less and less sure about the very existence of god. On easter Sunday of 1994, I was confirmed and became a full fledged member of the catholic church, ignoring the screaming voice in my head.
During this time, I rediscovered another childhood love, astronomy. Yes, this does tie in to the story. As was my habit, when I became interested in something, I would seek out magazines and books about it. During one of my trips to look for astronomy magazines, I noticed a magazine I had not seen before, Free Inquiry. The cover made it clear where this publication stood on the issues of god and religion. I bought it. It was the first time I had ever seen anything that said it was possible to live a moral life without god. From there, I discovered other publications like The Humanist, Skeptical Inquiry, Skeptic. These in turn led me to books. Richard Dawkins taught me that everything I had been taught in church about evolution was a lie. Michael Shermer helped me to figure out how to think for myself again. Paul Kurtz showed me that life without god was possible. But I still couldn't let go of god.
As I vocalized my growing lack of faith, the priest told me to read the church fathers, pray the rosary more, pray to Mary for more faith, go to daily mass and eucharistic adoration. In other word, the catholic version of what I had been told at my previous church.
In 1996, I quit going to mass, but I renewed my subscriptions to two catholic apologetics magazines and kept buying the afore mentioned skeptical magazines. So there I was, a foot in both camps. The cognitive dissonance should have caused my brain to explode, yet I managed to live with it until early 1998. Most of that time was spent going over every religious experience I had ever had, looking for something to hold on to, but they all turned to ashes in my hands-there was nothing real there.
Finally, in early 1998 my brain cried “Uncle.” I couldn't stand to think about any of it anymore. The books were shelved, the magazines tucked away in a drawer. I was slowly losing my sanity and had to just stop and give my mind a rest.
Then in June of 1998, shortly after my 35th birthday, I was home alone. I opened the drawer where I had been hiding the magazines from myself (I had still been buy the freethinker ones and putting them in there with the catholic ones). I pulled out one of the catholic magazines and started reading. This stuff was loony tunes. I pulled out the other-same thing. Not a bit of sense between the two of them. Then I pulled out the Free Inquiry and started reading an article by Richard Dawkins about religion-finally something that made sense.
About that time, the dryer buzzer went off and I got up to get my clothes. I walked through the kitchen, and a third of the way through the living room then came to a dead stop. “There is no god,” I said. Of course my next thought was, “Oh my god, I'm going to hell.” Then I started laughing so hard I had to sit down. “No, I'm not. There is no heaven. There is no hell. There is no god.” The last of the chains fell off, a huge weight lifted.
Of course, this declaration was a much a beginning as it was an end. I had a lot of rebuilding to do of myself. Rethink my entire worldview. Reintroduce me to myself. Therapy, tears, rages, a lot of thought, and one very good atheist friend got me through the next eight difficult years while I recovered from religion. So here I am today-a completely different person that I was all those years ago. I now think for myself, make my own choices, and live my life as I see fit. It is here, now, as an atheist that I have found the peace, joy, and contentment so long promised me by religion. I am truly free.